A recent article on CNN.com reports on a new large study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association that shows a connection between slower walking speeds (or gait) and development of dementia. The research seems to show that a decrease in the speed at which older adults walk year to year may be an early indicator of cognitive decline and dementia. The study looked at the pace of walking as well as the ability of participants to answer certain cognitive/memory questions, then drew conclusions about their relationship.
Although it was a large study (17,000 subjects), more research should follow. As I read the article, I wondered about a chicken and egg question. Did walking speed decrease because of lower cognition, or did cognition somehow decrease because of slower walking? If the second is the case, then it would make sense that we should regularly monitor people to see if they are literally slowing down; if so, they should be put on a program to increase the velocity of their gait. The research does show that when both factors (slower walking and cognitive decline) are present, there is a much greater chance of dementia–as opposed to mild cognitive impairment, which is a “normal” part of the aging process.
The study seems to indicate that the connection may exist in the right hippocampus–the area of the brain associated with memory. Believe it or not, the size of the right hippocampus can actually be increased with regular aerobic exercise (the kind that elevates heart and breating rates). It is not as if we simply have to accept the fact that once we slow down we are on a slippery slope to dementia; keeping up the pace of our exercise can have a positive impact. Even stretching exercises were shown to make a difference.
More research will surely be forthcoming. This study will certainly become an important tool in assessing the risks of dementia. It also provides another reason why it is so important for older adults to remain active and engage in regular exercise. It is not just about our physical health, but about our mental well-being too!